A formidable figure of the Romantic French art, Theodore Gericault was known for his multi-faceted skills in using different media to represent war events, noblemen portraits, and mythological narratives through his paintings. He was rarely trained by any well-known masters of the period because he took it upon himself to closely study art and the trending movements at the time.
He made prototypes of the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian, whose works he may have seen at Louvre. The Raft of Medusa (1819) was one of his highly celebrated paintings, which style he used was influenced by Antoine-Jean Gros, an academician. Gericault also looked up to some of his contemporaries such as Eugene Delacroix and Paul Delaroche. Both of the said artists were a great painter and engraver in their own right.
Gericault was one of the few painters who had mastery of three-dimensional painting. This skills enabled him to have an eye for sculpture, in which he could have had a promising future had he only chose to pursue it completely. Although if he chose sculpture over oil painting, his short lifetime would not allow him to do so unfortunately.
Nevertheless, Theodore Gericault was instrumental in pioneering the Romantic Movement in France. Some of his important works include The Charging Chasseur (1812), Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Field (1814), and The Raft of Medusa (1819).
Baptized as Jean-Louis Andre Theodore Gericault, the French artist was born on September 26, 1791 in Rouen, France. He grew up to a bourgeois family who owned a few properties in town. With that, his parents were able to afford to send him to a school in Paris and was mentored by Carle Vernet in 1808.
Vernet introduced him to the classical English sporting art which influenced him to become fascinated by horse racing and circuses. After two years of taking his apprenticeship years under Vernet, he got accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes and became a student of the rigid classicist Pierre Guerin. There he took a more serious formal art and academic training as well as gained access to visiting Louvre to study the paintings there.
However, after a few months of rigorous training, he quit Guerin’s studio and decided to pursue his studies by himself. He worked on a series of compositions that copied the works of the old masters at Louvre. Unfortunately, in 1812, he got expelled from the said museum as a consequence for hurting a fellow there.
Although Gericault got expelled from the Louvre museum permanently, this did not tarnish his growing reputation. In 1812, he executed The Charging Chasseur and submitted it to the Salon, which was his earliest painting to have been displayed there. The said painting displayed exceptional color and fluidity in the movement of the characters. Experts believe that this style was reminiscent of Antoine-Jean Gros’ and Rubens’ who were idolized by Gericault.
The Salon exhibition marked the opening of new notable opportunities wherein the next few years he painted small-scale art works which depict horses and equestrians. One fine example from this series is the Wounded Cuirassier of 1814. It was exhibited at the Salon in that same year but it did not turn out to be as popular as his first work.
As a result, Gericault enlisted himself to be in service of the garrison Versailles out of his disappointment. He then began another year of self-taught studies from schemes, compositions, and perspectives while figuring out how to evoke drama and expressiveness in his paintings. At the time, he was also dealing with some political issues happening in the country. King Louis XVIII was put into exile and the Paris National Guard was disbanded.
Napoleon took over France and Gericault sought refuge to places where he can hide. This disabled him to receive major commissions until the return of the Bourbon monarchy in July 1815. Gericault moved back to Paris and was discharged from his royal service. He decided to focus in developing his military and artistic social circles to get back right on track again.
Around 1815 to ’17, Gericault traveled to Italy, across Florence, Naples, and Rome. This was driven by his need to do away from his romantic relationship with his aunt, with whom he bore a child named Georges-Hippolyte in 1818. He found himself in Rome admiring over the masterpieces of Michelangelo and other old masters. In Rome, he became inspired to produce the Race of the Barberi Horses, a brilliant work that was considered as incomparable to any emerging paintings at the time.
While Gericault failed to win the grand prize of Prix de Rome, his Roman-inspired portraits showcased his profound reaction to the age of antiquity, Italian Renaissance, and the 19th century Europe. He studied paintings of colossal size, some of which depicted Roman carnival and horses without cavalry men such as the Horse Head (1815) and The Capture of a Wild Horse (1817).
By autumn of 1817, Gericault returned to Paris to continue his works for the Salon. He produced a monumental oil painting that depicts a national controversy. He drew the struggles of the French naval army called Medusa as they try to survive from possible drowning through a makeshift raft. The aristocratic leaders used the lifeboats to scamper away from the battle scene and left the military men on their own; hence, it was interpreted as a scandal.
By the time he returned to France, he immediately began experimenting with his new acquired style and knowledge. He made a number of lithographs based on his military lessons, and this study yielded to the creation of his own masterpiece, The Raft of Medusa (1818-1819). The aftermath of the shipwreck incident was elaborately painted, from the movement of the characters, gloomy atmosphere and facial expression.
The dramatic intensity was present in the art work and the theme was epic and universal. As it seems, Gericault wanted to portray man’s ever-enduring struggle against the forces of nature. The captain abandoned his team and left the passengers of the Medusa ship to die on the ocean. This particular masterpiece was greatly adored by Eugene Delacroix, who was still a young and emerging painter back then. He even modeled as one of the dying characters in the raft.
The Raft of Medusa is said to be a fusion of both classical and modern art. The turmoil of the subject matter and the classical construction of the figures fused neo-classicism and romanticism. Art historians believe that Gericault may have taken multiple influences to produce this work such as the Last Judgment of Michelangelo, group painting developed by Henry Fuseli, and the approach used by Antoine-Jean Gros for painting monumental art pieces.
When the Raft of Medusa was displayed at the Salon in 1819, it ignited controversy and rage among the audience particularly the politicians. Thus, they had to send it to England one year later. Gericault was with the team who brought the painting to another country and altogether, they exhibited it at London. It turned out that the painting was much more appreciated by the Englishmen than his fellow countrymen.
In London, Gericault found himself astounded by the impoverish state of the citizens there. Although, this socio-economic problem had inspired him to draw out his reaction. As a result, he produce a series of lithographs depicting his natural observation of London and his work looked very sentimental.
The Epsom Derby of 1821 was one of his major works in England. He was able to return to painting horses but this time, he painted them in the act of galloping or about to gallop as the horses increase its power and speed. It is said that Gericault may have learn of this new development from the English sporting painters because such an image did not exist in France until Edgar Degas.
Theodore Gericault traveled back to France in 1821. This time, he began entertaining the notion of depicting insanity. He might have been influenced by Dr. Etienne-Jean Georget who was a psychiatrist. He painted about ten portraits of the mental health doctor’s patients, in which five of the portraits is collectively called Insane Woman.
The portraits were executed in a magnificent style, heightened realism and the facial expressions remained faithful to the natural discomfort felt and experienced by the mental patients. However, unfortunately, little did Gericault know that the series would foreshadow his own vulnerability to mental health deterioration?
In his advanced years, his subject had become dark and bizarre depicting severed limbs and heads yet the overall composition was remarkable. A few years before he suffered a premature death he devoted himself to studying different brilliant compositions such as the Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition and African Slave Trade.
He prepared the first few drawings for his last ambitious work but his poor state of health hindered him from doing so. He endured the trauma caused by his riding accidents and tubercular infection long enough that in 1824, he succumbed to the disease.
Theodore Gericault’s remains were buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. They placed a monument at his tomb which was executed in bronze material. The sculpted Gericault was in a reclining position while holding his paint brush in hand. This goes to show how France appreciated his contributions to their 19th century art and would be forever commemorated.